Transdisciplinary Language Experiences using the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

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Judith McKerrecher started teaching Modern Languages in Edinburgh. She was Curriculum Leader at Liberton High School and then Curriculum Leader at Craigmount High School. She is currently on secondment to The Confucius Institute for Scotland’s Schools based at Scotland’s National Centre for Languages in the University of Strathclyde. This remit takes her to schools across Scotland to support teachers in primary and secondary schools with the introduction and progression of Mandarin and includes supporting projects, designing and delivering Professional Learning for teachers and supporting the Hanban teachers with training throughout their time in Scottish schools.


Transdisciplinary Language Experiences using the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals


“The sum of human wisdom is not contained in any one language.” Ezra Pound

In our world today when we consider the value and purpose of language learning, never has it been so important to move away from seeing ourselves as a single subject in isolation to the rest of the curriculum. The opportunity to use our languages to transcend borders and boundaries, tackle prejudice and build a more tolerant, inclusive world where intercultural understanding and valuable collaboration contribute to a sustainable planet for future generations is relevant, ambitious and exciting.  Regardless of the language we speak, teach or learn, if we share the belief that we must leave our world a little better than we found it, that we are only dancing upon a continuum of what came before us and what will be when we are gone and that our actions can combine to contribute towards a global common good, we adopt a more humanistic approach towards education where we can trans-language and help learners to see the world anew from different cultural and linguistic perspectives. Interconnectivity is key component in language learning.  It is instrumental in moving learners away from a classroom to the diversity of languages and cultures around them in their own communities and it connects them beyond their own communities to the world.

Learning for Sustainability Scotland is Scotland’s Regional Centre for Expertise in education for sustainable development:

It is one of a network of centres of expertise throughout the United Kingdom and beyond.  The events, courses, conferences and meetings they facilitate support awareness and understanding of the Sustainable Development Goals and how society can work towards achieving them:

Having had the opportunity to attend such events where colleagues from different contexts and sectors can collaborate and share, I have been inspired to investigate how a transdisciplinary curriculum can be co-created around the goals for sustainable development. This provides rich, varied and meaningful inroads to language learning, consolidation and progression. Along with recently developed resources and relevant links this will be the focus of the session I will be facilitating on behalf of Scotland’s National Centre for Languages and The Confucius Institute for Scotland’s Schools at the Languages Show in October.  As well as looking at and discussing the connections to the sustainable development goals, our planet and language learning, the session will explore a variety of contexts for language learning. Having recently created a new project based professional learning menu, we have carefully considered the SDGs and this is reflected in the choices on offer. For example, the opportunity to combine science experiments with languages, geography, storytelling and outdoor learning or history with language, heritage, culture and nature is a breath of fresh air to language learning. In this way, languages can be used creatively and purposefully in new contexts.    

It is essential that our learners now and in the future are developing the core skills which will allow for effective decision making, working together and team work because their choices and actions will impact upon the preservation, the safety and the future of our planet. These core skills are made explicit and very usefully illustrated by the British Council Schools Online:

The development of such core skills helps prepare young people for life and work in a globalised economy but also to face environmental and social challenges, preserve the earth for future generations and to become solution focused for a more equitable world.

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” Marcel Proust

Learning for Sustainability is an international priority which must remain high on the agenda as we all work towards a better world:  Learning for Sustainability permeates the General Teaching Council for Scotland’s Standards in our values, our pedagogical approaches and in curriculum content and it is the role of all educators to ensure that it is embedded in their practice irrespective of subject or context. 

The GTCS self-evaluation wheel for Learning for Sustainability is a useful tool for reflecting upon where we are in our own journey in our own contexts:  (see diagram).

Please follow the link for how best to use the self-evaluation wheel:

The natural creativity and curiosity of many teachers ensures that we are always seeking new ways to facilitate transdisciplinary learning. Outdoor spaces provide a wonderful context for taking language learning beyond the four walls of our classrooms.

Combining language learning with being outside, enjoying nature and teaching using natural resources and the local environment around learners, makes for a stimulating, enriching opportunity which is relevant to the context of a school or community and which can be developed and linked to a much wider global context. One very effective way to do this in the United Kingdom and abroad is by combining language learning with the John Muir Award:

This is also an excellent way to reinforce the benefits of being outside for health and wellbeing and to raise learners’ awareness of their own local environments, look at how this compares and contrasts globally, and, perhaps most importantly, consider and reflect upon the responsibility they themselves have for its conservation. Contrary to what some of them may think our individual contributions can make a difference even when we start small, looking at our local area and then seeing it in relation to a wider world. An example of this can be seen in a recent project involving language learners in Scotland and in China with outdoor learning.

In Scotland we had a group of secondary school learners completing the John Muir Award with a focus upon their own local outdoor environment and the learning of Mandarin. Simultaneously, we had a group of middle school learners in China completing the award in English. Initially there was lots of ground work to be done with the teacher overseeing completion of the award in China but the time spent on this was invaluable as it has facilitated an excellent means of shared experiences, ensured quality learning opportunities for learners and paved a way for future collaboration in such projects across countries. Learners from China used English in their communications, activities, sharing and reflections.


Learners in Scotland used Mandarin in their outdoor experiences as follows:

They discovered words in Mandarin to describe a woodland area near their school. They used pinyin, Chinese characters and drawings to reflect their work.

They make Chinese characters from sticks, twigs and stones from the environment around them.

They played a labelling game and a “guess the character game” in Mandarin.

They learned how to express themselves and to describe texture, feelings, smells and sounds in Mandarin.

 They collected natural materials from their area to make Chinese opera masks and made up a role play giving them an identity and express their likes and dislikes.

 They did Tai Chi sessions in the woods. 

 They invented a rap in Mandarin about a caterpillar they found.

 They made posters and banners in Mandarin to highlight the impact of pollution on their environment and campaigned to protect their area.

 They made a poster using natural items they found outside and added the new Chinese characters they had learned.

 They completed four days of tasks with the help of a work booklet which combined the elements of the John Muir Award and Mandarin, Chinese culture and personal reflection.

The school in China did similar activities outdoors, also using a work booklet, in English so that both sets of learners were able to use the language they were learning as well as their mother tongue language. Additionally, both sets of learner also had a focus upon lichen growth, different types of lichen and how this could be an indication of the level of air pollution. They discovered that trees look very different in both countries and were more aware of what causes air pollution and the quality of air in each country. Throughout this project all learners kept a reflective journal and evidence of their learning using their foreign language in their work booklets.

At times they combined elements of their own language with the language they were learning to illustrate their cultural perspectives and give each other insights into each other’s understanding. This was especially reflected in the posters they produced and shared and in the tasks they completed in their reflective journals.

Not only did learners enjoy collaboration and a real context for language learning, but they also experienced other subject areas such as science, expressive arts and modern studies, not to mention the opportunity to further

develop skills in literacy and intercultural understanding. Importantly, they had reflected more deeply on how being outside has benefits to health and wellbeing and their own roles in looking after their environment. Feedback from all participants, including teachers, was extremely positive and will also be helpful to consider when planning similar projects in the future. Although the John Muir Award can be achieved internationally, outdoor learning need not be attached to an award. It is an opportunity to embrace outside spaces we may take for granted or overlook, allowing us to look deeper at what is around us and how we can harness natural surroundings to boost our learning.

“My humanity is bound up in yours for we can only be human together” Desmond Tutu

 This is but one example of how the SDGs can be embraced to support the planning and implementation of meaningful transdisciplinary and translanguaging experiences. By integrating them into our approach to teaching and learning, the potential exists not only to transform learning but also to transform our approach to preserving our precious planet and aiming for an equitable world for all. 



British Council Schools on Line (website)

 Confucius Institute for Scotland’s Schools (website)

 General Teaching Council for Scotland (website)

John Muir Trust (website)

 Learning for Sustainability Scotland (website)

Scotland’s National Centre for Languages (website)

United Nations (website)

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